What is really at stake in the by-election?

The real question that ought to be asked is: ‘What’ exactly voters should be voting for?

Some have surmised that the outcome of the by-election will decide who will win in the next general elections. But the real question that ought to be asked is: ‘What’ exactly voters should be voting for?

There was a lot of hallagulla after 3pm Saturday last in the vicinity of SVR SSS, Sodnac, Quatre Bornes. This was on the occasion of Nomination Day for candidates intending to stand for the by-election of 17th December in this constituency. Not less than 40 candidates from all sorts of political parties – known and less well-known – registered for the election of one member to the Assembly.

Ever since one National Assembly member resigned his seat, voters in the constituency and outside have been speculating who will get elected. Some have surmised that the outcome of this by-election will decide who will win in the next general elections of 2019.

But the real question that ought to have been asked was barely raised: ‘What’ exactly voters should be voting for? It is not about a choice to be made among different protagonists depending on their personal appeal, or about whether or not a single public-sector project, the Metro Express, should be implemented the way it is contemplated or not at all, or whether the classic political parties should be shunned in favour of new ones?

The ‘What’ is much more important than the ‘Who’. The issue at hand is bigger than that ‘those others have failed already’ or that one should not choose them but “Me” because “I” am different. Should something more fundamental than such egoistical vindications be at the basis of this election and still others to come?

An example of deeper issues needing to be addressed

Consider an example from the field of economics. There was a lot of public noise a couple of months back when the price of fuel oil was raised by the State Trading Corporation (STC). It was being said that since the international price of oil had not increased at the time, there was no reason to hike the price on the local market. It was also being stated threateningly that a certain number of goods and services consumed by the public (bread, bus fares) will as a consequence be increased to reflect the STC’s oil price hike.

Look at facts now about the oil market and what should be our concern in this regard. The oil cartel, OPEC, and its new-found ally, Russia, have been curtailing oil supply to global markets. Their aim is to increase the international price of oil. Whereas Brent crude was at $40 a barrel in April, it crossed in the last week the psychological $60, being at around $64 a barrel currently. It has not yet reached the $112/barrel of early 2014. If it did, it will matter. Sabre-rattling at the international level could shoot up the price even more.

If that happens, the less well-off who’ve gotten into more and more personal vehicles and others below using public transportation or having to pay a higher price for bread and so forth, will be the most affected. Others higher up on the income ladder will take care to cushion themselves against adverse consequences. Worse, the share of the country’s oil import bill (20% of total imports currently with prevailing below-peak international oil prices) will increase, eating into our already shrinking export earning capacity, as the data keep showing. If it came to the crunch, the burden would weigh heavily in the budget of the lower and middle classes.

This is where the question of the “What” of politics arises. Which relevant policies should be adopted well in time to protect and insulate those more exposed to losing even more of their meagre purchasing power? Short of enunciating the relevant public policies to parry the blow, the country will be at a loss against upsetting adverse international developments of the sort.

There are other risks to which the economy has become increasingly exposed, such as disruption of markets and the associated uncertainty. Unless we have politicians with a clear understanding of what is really at stake from different angles in the current environment and who can formulate apt policies to deal with them, those less well-off will keep being pushed against the wall.

A historical perspective

The failure to pursue a people-oriented framework is not a problem concerning Mauritius solely. It is widespread today.

This is explaining the waves of discontent we are seeing being expressed in different countries against politicians who have given up defending the pure social values they once stood for, notably defence of the interests of the masses. A number of well-placed politicians are being questioned today about large amounts of personal wealth they’ve accumulated, on occasion, including in outside jurisdictions. A voter would be justified to question whether all of the wealth they’ve accumulated is from legitimate sources. Or, was it a payback for adopting policies working in favour of the economic elite to the detriment of the masses?

For example, it is being said that Donald Trump’s recent budget proposals, supported by an administration packed with billionaires, is going for tax-cutting that will help mainly the already rich. Also, the main consequence of Brexit so far has been for the UK pound to fall, squeezing real wages of workers, who had voted for it looking to greater relief.

History shows that people have used their economic power to get into more personal wealth, way back from the early 19th century. While this process has led to large scale emancipation of workers from the shackles of perpetual poverty, it is those who have bribed politicians to get into more economic power that have benefited the most. It is they who dominate local and global politics today in a scenario where politics plays increasingly into the hands of the economic elite for personal gain.

The gaping inequalities the economic power exerted by such influence-peddling economic elites has produced in different democracies culminated in the financial crisis of 2007. By then, labour laws had swung around to protect not the workers but the employing economic elite wishing to “hire and fire” at will, holding workers on a tight leash.

 The question is “What”

Unless this trend is reversed, we are headed for a social crisis when forces beyond our control hit hard at the economy. We don’t need to be there. To avoid being there, Mauritius will now need not classic politicians who give in to wealth owners. We’ll need pragmatic political entrepreneurs. They not only have to have a clear vision of how to reformat the social project to tilt the balance in favour of the majority of the population and not solely the economic elite. They’ll also need to be strong implementers with hands-on experience.

They will know how to again empower the grassroots enduringly without demotivating those who undertake economic activity. A true democracy based on perpetual renewal, innovation of the production apparatus with workers’ concerns at the core and coping successfully with emerging challenges in a fitting manner might restore the lost trust of the masses in politicians.

This desired new generation of politicians will cultivate more democracy, unity and dynamism around better ideas than being caught in the web of bribery by the economic elite. For this, the views of the people will be sought before major policy direction is changed. The political parties will themselves need to redefine themselves: away from corrupt political party systems in which inter-party democracy is a sham. Until we depart from the old game of winning power by putting communities against each other in this corrupt model, we are unlikely to get politicians who enduringly solve, rather than create, social problems.

Anil Gujadhur

 

  • Published in print edition on 10 November 2017

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